Implicit Bias in the Workplace

Although women attorneys have made major progress in recent decades, we continue to face unique challenges to success in the workplace. In today’s world, the challenges are not typically reflective of explicit bias, but rather implicit bias, which in many ways is much harder to address. The reason: it is a bias that is hidden, unseen and unrecognized in each of us. Many of us do not even believe that this implicit bias exists, which makes it much harder to root out.


Neuroscience and examinations of the human brain continue to demonstrate that all of us have certain attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Women have biases as well, often the same conceived biases regarding how women “should” behave. They too grew up with the same influences and social expectations that help to create these inherent biases. has a popular implicit bias test that more than 5 million people have taken; the results indicate most people have an inherent bias against those who do not look like them. Any combination of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age can affect that bias.

Surely if we were consciously displaying a bias, all of us would reject it. Most everyone believes themselves to be gender neutral when it comes to workplace or similar decisions. We assume that statistics regarding gender disparity relate to other employers, not us. Since we all have sisters, daughters and spouses, of course we would treat women at work fairly.

The reality is that we all have some kind of implicit bias, often making us feel less comfortable around people who do not look like we do. The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, gender and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime, beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages, as well as life experiences. These biases are an individual’s reaction to a person even before one meets them or they open their mouths to say hello. Often it is an assumption that the brain makes about that person’s personality based on nothing more than their ethnicity, their gender or their appearance.

The perception in the legal field is that getting ahead relies purely on objective merit, but at times the playing field is not level for women and other minorities. Inherent bias can unconsciously infiltrate into decisions about hiring, compensation and elevation. Chances are that your decision making has been affected by your own inherent biases, and impacted the objectivity brought to your decision-making process in the workplace.

The statistics continue to point to concerns that need to be addressed. Here are some examples.

Pay disparity:

  • In 2014, women working full time in the U.S. were paid 79%of the wages paid to men for the same job.
  • The wage gap narrowed in the 1970s, but women in the legal field currently work an average of 8 hours more per week than men work, but receive 80 % of the compensation that goes to their male colleagues.
  • Women are often labeled as greedy and aggressive and not team-driven when asking for a well-deserved raise or bonus; men are viewed as strong and good negotiators.

For women lawyers specifically:

  • Florida Bar 2015 Young Lawyer’s Division Survey found that 43% of the state’s young female attorneys have encountered one or more instances of discrimination, including gender bias, harassment, and pay differentials.
  • While U.S. law school enrollment is statistically evenly split among men and women, and leadership on Law Review is comparable with 46% of the posts held by women, the level of equality switches radically once young women start work.
  • With every passing year of attorney development, the number of women declines. The entering classes of new associates at most major U.S. law firms is 40-45 women, but that number dwindles to around 25 % of new partners and continues dropping to 18% of equity level partners.

Double standard in parenthood:

  • Research shows mothers are penalized in pay and promotions because employers assume they will be less committed to
  • Fathers get raises because employers think they will be more committed to “bread-winning.”


What Can Be Done?

We all need to accept that we have implicit biases, and then choose to overcome them. How? Overall, decouple preconceived ideas of what women should look and act like. Step out of your personal comfort zones. Stop and evaluate decisions that may be affected by implicit bias. Speak out when you see others making decisions that you believe are affected by such biases.

This “call to action” requires a plan.

Elements for a Plan of Action:

  • Take the initiative and spread the word in our circles of influence to help reduce implicit bias at work, home and in our communities.
  • Speak up when you hear gender bias, if not with a boss at least with peers.
  • Question the recommendations of peers to ensure that they are not influenced by bias.
  • Discuss the issue with everyone in your life, including partners, family, sons and friends.
  • Take steps in business to dissociate the gender and physical appearance from a decision by looking at resumes without names.
  • Use standardized questions for interviews and introduce objective performance criteria.
  • Go out of your way to provide leadership opportunities for women.
  • Focus on creating or moving forward a culture of change that embraces women in leadership positions.
  • As a woman, do not be afraid to ask for business and ask for more money.
  • Do not just simply network with potential clients—ask them for their business.
  • Look for leadership opportunities outside of the workplace, like a bar or community organization.

Those of us who have made it to the top now have an opportunity to lead the way for equal opportunities for others. The phenomenon of women choosing to leave the profession just at the point in their careers when they should be reaching the pinnacle of success  has never been studied or explained.

To start the process of exploring the issues and framing solutions, during my year as president of the American Bar Association we will undertake a research project—Ladders, Labyrinths and Leaders: A First Look at the Life Cycles and Long-term Careers of Women Lawyers. This first-of-its-kind project will aim to bring national attention to the need to retain women lawyers and reverse this damaging attrition.

Along with the research study that will examine the attrition of women in all practice settings, a prominent summit will focus on steps for the implementation of equitable compensation practices, and other best practices that are needed to help reverse this disturbing trend. If women continue to leave the practice of law in such high numbers, we can never hope to see parity of women in key firm leadership positions. Together we can work to create a level playing field and get rid of the old biases that still linger.

About the Author

Hilarie Bass serves as co-president of Greenberg Traurig and is president-elect of the American Bar Association.

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